YMCA CEO Glen Gunderson's Perspective on Engaging Youth as Leaders and Learners After School

There are many challenges in our communities, and the Y believes in joining forces with other organizations to tackle some of them. That’s what I love about the Beacons Network, a collaboration with the YWCA, Boys and Girls Club and Minneapolis Public Schools Community Education to transform schools into community centers.

Youth participation in after school programs yields reduced juvenile crime, sexual activity and other risky behaviors, according to research from UCLA.

We’re leveraging the youth development chops of all these organizations so we can make the program impactful and relevant, and we’ve determined the key is to empower students to lead and shape the programs.

When the final bell rings, Beacons come to life – and the activities and interests vary from location to location.

Rather than adults forcing activities upon them, students may choose to focus on cutting hair, cooking meals, playing basketball or floor hockey, or mixing music.

The program does really, really important work around social and emotional learning and academic enrichment, including assistance for students who may be falling behind in a subject.

No one at the Y understands the impact of Beacons better than Alyson Mohan-Lucas, the program executive. And Isaiah Hudson has literally grown up in Beacons; he started at the age of 8 and now, at 20 years old, he works on the staff.

I wanted to provide them the opportunity to share more specifics about Beacons and some of the challenges the program faces.

Isaiah: “They sold me on the program because of the energy and activities. I heard about chess, and my dad and uncles played. I wanted to learn so I could beat them!”

“But I did other programs, like Boys to Men, where I learned how to use my influence in a positive way.”

“I stayed in Beacons because my friends were there and the staff wasn’t fake. They genuinely cared about us.”

“I wasn’t in Beacons in ninth grade, so I didn’t have a mentor teaching me and showing me how to be a young man. But I transferred to Edison High School for 10th grade, and I helped start a Beacons there. I joined the leadership team, and I helped plan a school dance. There hadn’t been one because of safety concerns. But we took on the challenge. We recruited some of the most influential youth leaders throughout the school to help us. We wanted it to be positive, inclusive. I learned to wear different hats and manage teams.”

“The school dance was a success. Everyone was talking about it!”

“It gave me a good feeling on the inside. I could do great things if I put my energy into something useful.”

Alyson: “It was contagious! Then Isaiah started emceeing a talent show and doing Spoken Word. His words were so intentional and so powerful.

Now Isiaah is paying it forward. He’s that engaging, caring adult, to provide consistency to young people.

We are proud that 95 percent of young people in Y programs say they have an adult – like Isaiah – to talk to when needed.

There are very few people who get to see the true impact of the programs they work in. I get to see that every single day. Kindergarteners I worked with are now eighth graders!

We collaborate with the school. Our expertise isn’t teaching, but it’s in youth development and team building. Those skills transfer into the classroom.

We’re seeing that young people in our program come to school more often, more engaged in their classes, and see themselves as leaders.

But funding continues to be a challenge for us. It’s shifted and decreased significantly. Last year, we had to close a Beacons program for the first time.

We’ve been able to show longevity of 20 years. But it’s a struggle to operate a program like this.”

To provide young people with access to life-changing resources, safe spaces, education support, enrichment opportunities and more, text YGIVE to 41444 to give easily and help strengthen programs and services until all can thrive.